Entrepreneur Maribeth Kuzmeski got tired of being the proverbial “only woman in the room”. Serving the financial services sector as President of Red Zone Marketing, Maribeth decided to roll up her sleeves, “give forward” and create a foundation to get women in finance and entrepreneurship the female role models and mentors they need to succeed. She also hosts The Female Insight Zone broadcast to 1.5m C-Suite Executives on C-Suite Radio. Maribeth shares her tips on resilience, confidence and how to command a room.
Melinda Wittstock: Maribeth, welcome to ‘Wings.'
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well, thank you for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: It's so good to have you on. I love to hear stories of women helping other women. You've been doing this specifically since 2009 with Red Zone Leadership; really helping women and girls. Tell me about what was the ‘aha' moment or the inspiration that took you down that path?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: When I started the foundation about nine years ago, I did it because … my company, Red Zone Marketing, actually works entirely in the financial services industry with men, mostly. I just saw all these women that really needed mentoring, and needed help, and needed support for just to be able to lead themselves.
I started this foundation just with the thought that if I can support organizations that are supporting women in leadership, that's how I wanted to start it off. Women and girls who are really going to be our next level of leaders. Then, that sprouted into all these other things and now I'm doing with the foundation not only giving to other organizations with the money that we have in our foundation, but also we do podcasts. We've got all sorts of information and resources for women who really want to be better leaders.
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. Along the way, as you mentor girls and women, particularly in business, financial services, what are some of the key challenges that persist?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Yeah, I mean one of the biggest challenges is that I think that we don't have the role models, especially in male dominated industries like I happen to be in. We don't have the role models that say, ‘Okay, that's how I'm going to do that.' I see exactly how to do it. We don't see how to do it exactly. Then we run it up against roadblocks, and then we back off. Frankly, a lot of the women that enter into industries that are male dominated will end up leaving the industry because they just feel sort of out of place. I think that out-of-place piece is what we can try to work on first, because if we're going to feel out of place; which we [aren't 00:09:34 going to feel out of place, but we can't deal with it or we don't deal with it, then we just move on to something that's easier or different. It's not good for industries that really need women.
Melinda Wittstock: I think that's so true. I think of financial services, I think of coding. Women who are naturally talented at these things but feeling like they don't fit in, or they don't have a voice, or that they have to behave like men and quickly get out of authenticity. What's your advice for somebody who finds themselves in that situation? I mean it's their vocation, it's their love; but sort of the well gets poisoned because they don't like the environment they're in.
Maribeth Kuzmeski: I think the key is to find someone who's your advocate within the organization who might happen to be a male, or someone who can give you some advice. I think it's really important … so we want to have females that are mentors but if we're in a situation where there's not females that can mentor us, we have to find a man that can mentor us and that could be behind us, and give us advice, and tell us things that we're not seeing right away; and push us along to be our best. I think that's really a key is to find that mentor within that happens to be a man.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes, that's true. What should people look for? I think there are a lot of very well intentioned men out there who don't necessarily know how to mentor women, or how to speak to women. I think we see things through our own eyes and our own acculturation. We hear things differently sometimes if a man is sort of like adding or helping you with an idea, to a woman, it may sound like criticism. What do women need to know about working with men and how to hear things a little bit differently? Sometimes men come across in a way that women … maybe can take personally, but it's never meant … Well, it's rarely meant that way.
We have to take a deep breath sometimes and understand that every man is not going to be politically correct in the way that he speaks; but he’s going to be able to hopefully give us some good advice, and lead us along a path. #WingsPodcast #WomeninBusiness @MBKuzmeskiClick to tweet
Maribeth Kuzmeski: That's exactly right. I think that we have to take a deep breath sometimes and understand that every man is not going to be politically correct in the way that he speaks; but he's going to be able to hopefully give us some good advice, and lead us along a path. We've got to be able to get through that, especially older males are … culturally, it's just different. We can learn a lot from them, but we have to be able to be okay with some of the ways that they speak about things. Now, we don't want to let them take advantage of us or anything like that, but I mean if they're talking in a way that we don't … We go, ‘Hmm, that's interesting that he said that.' I think it's to be able to read between the lines in some cases. I'm talking about advice. If we're looking for advice and we're looking for guidance. I'm not talking about anything besides that.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes.
Maribeth Kuzmeski: We've got to be able to sort of read between the lines and say, ‘Okay, I know what he means by that.' I talk to my father. I talk to my husband. They might say things differently than I do, but I have a different level of tolerance for my father and my husband. I think it's the same thing when you're really trying to be mentored and learn from someone else. We've got to be able to have just a touch more tolerance. Again, I am only speaking about advice.
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly. Well, I mean women have this natural empathy. I think in a case of empathy, walking in someone else's shoes really helps. That is, kind of understanding the context of the guy. I think one of the things that's really interesting about men is they tend in business to not take things personally; whereas women are more likely to think. Maybe it's just a deep down fear. ‘Oh god, was it something about me?' Or, ‘Did I do,' … or whatever. I think we're maybe a little bit more sensitive to that kind of criticism. How can we get out of our own way, just like not take things personally in that sense?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well, I think we just … As women, we might think just a little bit more deeply about things. I remember my son, when he was in high school, he got in a fight with one of his friends and then the next day, he saw him in the hall.
He goes, “Ugh, I forgot I was mad at him.” He goes, “We just went on like it was normal.” That's just kind of how guys do it. They just, ‘Oh, I forgot I was mad at him.'
Melinda Wittstock: [crosstalk 00:13:54 Right, just let it go. Yeah.
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Right. There are certain cases that you don't want to let it go, and there are other cases where maybe we should. Maybe we should give them a little bit as they're talking in a different way that maybe we don't … ‘Boy, I wouldn't have said it like that.' Of course we wouldn't have. Or, we take it personally and maybe it wasn't intended to be personal.
If you really think that, you might ask the person, “Here's how I felt when you said this. Is that how you meant it?”
They'll be like, “Oh my gosh, no. No.” Part of it is us helping the men to speak differently and to understand what they're saying differently. Sometimes we just got to say that … ‘Here's how that felt when you said that to me. Is that how you meant that?'
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. I think a lot of men actually want that guidance as well. I don't know if they know how to ask for it. It's really kind of delicate time right now. They don’t know what to say, when. They're kind of a little nervous and are looking for guidance, I suppose, in that way as well. I mean, let's go back in time a little bit; because Red Zone Marketing has been going for 20 years. Did you find yourself often like the only woman in the room?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Oh I still do. I was in a meeting yesterday where I was the only woman in the room, and there were 25 men in the room. That just … That's how it is in financial services, especially as you go up the ranks. It just seems like there's more men than women. I'm … Unfortunately, I'm kind of used to that. I wish it wasn't that way, and it doesn't seem to be improving; although just about every large financial services organization has a diversity and inclusion program. It just hasn't made the kind of impact that we need it to have. I think it goes back to that feeling of just uncomfortable, ‘I know this is not the place for me. I don't feel like this is my home.'
I've just kind of ignored it. I had an opportunity when I was … way back 20 years ago when I was starting my firm to speak in front of a group of financial advisors. I loved it, and I thought, ‘Well, this is great.' I never thought about the fact that this might be something where I'm out of my realm or something like that. It was always okay for me, but I still look around the room today and I look and I say, ‘Well how can I be the only woman in this room?' That's just how it goes.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, so often in my career, I have been the only woman in the room. I remember going way back, I was 22 and I joined the Times of London as a business correspondent. We shared these desks, like four correspondents to a workstation. We had like what was then called a secretary. The secretary, always female, brought coffee to all the guys, brought mail to all the guys, but I was expected to get my own. She refused to … Right? Like that was my introduction to work life. It was really difficult to find a mentor, and any … There were so few woman ahead of me in journalism. There were a handful; they were not inclined to mentor.
I kind of grew up in business, in entrepreneurship, and technology, journalism, all of that often as the only woman in the room. I don't know about you, but I find myself being kind of like and behaving like one of the guys for the longest time. I think I was just really out of balance in some way that was not really conscious of; but increasingly, I am. How was that for you like personally? What kind of toll did it take?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well, for … I totally agree with you, because in the beginning, I was the same way. I am a huge sports fan. I can talk with any guy about sports. If they don't understand sports, or they don't like sports, I'm at a little bit of a disadvantage; but usually I can connect with just about any guy who loves sports because I know a lot about sports. I can have that kind of a conversation.
One thing I realized early on, in terms of connecting with men, was that I did feel like I needed to dress like them. It was the weirdest thing in the world, but I look back at what I wore when I first started my career. It was always black pantsuits and they were not sexy. They were not. They were just a black pantsuit, and if I could have worn a necktie, I probably would have. I mean I just looked more like them. Today, I'm okay dressing the way that I feel comfortable as a woman dressing and wearing dresses, and doing things that are different. When you're trying to fit in, you do things even subconsciously. Like, what was I wearing? Today, I'm better with it, but it took me some years to figure that out.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, it's true. I mean I think of all the different ways in which … I did that, too. I really minimized my femininity for sure. I was just a lot more … I guess, I don't know … A lot of women…I think we're afraid of the ‘B' word. I remember …
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: In television anchoring, like way, way back, I just decided like, ‘Okay, like if I'm a really nice person, but if everyone's going to put that on me, I'm just going to own it.'
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: Because it was sort of like even other women, it was sort of like other women were trying to pull you down, because there was some sense of scarcity.
As women climbed up the corporate ladder or whatever kind of ladder I guess that you were on, there were fewer and fewer women. I think a lot of us were afraid of the ‘B' word. There was a certain point in time where I just had to get over that. I just had to think, ‘Okay, I mean it doesn't really matter. That's somebody else's problem. That's not who I am. I'm a nice person. Just because I'm direct or I sing my own praises, not to be a bragging person but to take credit and stand up for my own ideas. That does not mean I'm a bitch.'
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, but it took some courage to do that. I think it's difficult for women in those kind of atmospheres. Fortunately though, do you think it's changing and changing quickly?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: I don't know if it's changing quickly, but I do think that it is changing. I think as you see more and more women who are doing amazing things, it becomes more of ‘Oh, that's accepted. That's good.' I think when you see someone rise to the top and there's no one like them rising to the top, it becomes, ‘Well, who is she? And what is she all about?' People feel threatened. But I agree with you, it's someone else's problem. It is definitely someone else's problem, whether it's the woman who's criticizing the other woman who's rising up; or it's men. It's they have a problem. I just … I always, I live by this: not everyone is going to like you. Someone is going to call you the ‘B' word. That's just the way that it is. You got to be okay with that and move on, because it's not the majority of people. It's just a few. We always listen to those few when they're not actually the majority.
Melinda Wittstock: Isn't that so interesting? Because we do tend to hear the negative, not the … This is just not just women; I think men do, too. Our minds seem to go that way. There's probably some neuroscience around it. As a marketing expert, Maribeth, with Red Zone, I mean you know the best marketing is polarizing.
We want to listen to the criticism and we want to learn from the criticism always, but we don’t always have to obsess over it. #WingsPodcast #WomeninBusiness @MBKuzmeski Click to tweet
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Oh absolutely, absolutely; even speaking. I speak all the time, in front of big conferences. There could be a hundred people that said that was the best presentation I ever heard, and one person said, ‘Well, I didn't like the way you opened the presentation up.' I would just absolutely think about that one negative thing, and how could I have done it differently? What I did wrong? How could this have been that I opened up the wrong way, or whatever it was. Then, I started thinking about it. Like, ‘Okay, I know we started to obsess over the negative things, but if I had a 100 people say this was the best presentation they ever heard, and one person said they didn't like the way I opened it, I've got to go with the majority.'
We want to listen to the criticism and we want to learn from the criticism always, but we don't always have to obsess over it. I find that I used to do that all the time.
I would even say to my assistant, “I'm going to give you back all these evaluations from this speaking engagement, but I don't really … I didn't look at them, and I really don't want to see the negative ones.” Then, sometime … Then over time, I got better with, ‘Okay, I really need to see those, because I really need to find out how I get better.' They're few and far in between. In fact, I haven't seen one in a while, but it's one of those things where you've got to be able to put it in perspective. That's hard.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. No, it really, really is. Where do you see things going? Like when you look at the women that you're counseling, say through all your mentoring work. What are the things that women need the most to succeed in business?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: I think they need the confidence that their own abilities are just … are excellent, are great, are exactly what is needed. That confidence piece … Now, I don't know if it's a … if men are less … or excuse me, more confident than women, or if they just present differently; but it seems like this confidence piece. When we work with women, it's all about let's think about all the great things that you've got, and all the work you're doing to improve yourself in this area, and that area, and get better at these things. You're good at this.
It's being able to keep that confidence so when you get in front of a group, or you're in a meeting, or you're at a board meeting; that you're willing to do what you know is in your ability because we've worked on this thought process through confidence. It sounds kind of like a small thing, but it's really … It's an underlying thing based on everything that we see in working with women. I'm talking about the highest level women, in some cases, will have crises of confidence.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, I think men do, too; but they don't necessarily show it or deal with it in the same way. It's interesting this, because I think what drives a lot of people deep down, whether they're conscious of it or not, is fear of failure; in some cases, fear of success. I always love to ask successful women, because we've all had our failures. What was a fail moment that you perceived at the time it was a fail moment in your career or in your life that you learned from; perhaps it was the making of you, or what you took away from it, how you got through it? Could you share?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Yeah, absolutely. I think the one that comes to mind, and I don't want to just use speaking examples, but it seems to be the highest profile examples. When I had first started in my career, I think it was the second big public presentation that I had done. I'm getting paid to do this presentation. I go in with all of my pumped up self confidence that this is just going to be the greatest presentation. I went in there and delivered this presentation. It was hard, and I went … It was powerful; that's what I thought it was.
Then, I heard afterwards some … not the greatest feedback on the presentation. I thought, ‘Well, but that was a great presentation.' I realized that I didn't have the self-awareness around what I was doing, and reading the audience in terms of what they were hearing. It was an audience of men, and I start off with a football story. They're wondering, ‘Why is she talking about football? Like what does she know about football?'
Someone actually said to me, “You know, if you actually started with your grandma story,” which I always tell this story about my grandma, which is why I'm a football fan. “If you would have told that story in the beginning, we'd a liked you a lot better.” I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.' It was one of those things where … and it was not a great presentation. It did not rank well, because I had an entire audience of men who were wondering, ‘What is she doing? Why is she coming out with all this power and energy, and talking about football? And what does she know?'
It was an incredible learning experience. I immediately hired a speaking coach. I sat down with him and went through the presentation, and gave him the feedback that I received. We did sort of flip the presentation around. I spoke a lot less about some of the things that we think were causing some of the audience members to feel differently about me. I always start with my grandma story now in the beginning of most presentations. It's just one of the things that you learn, and I would never have learned it had not that person come up to me and give me that … and I was ready to cry when he said that.
I'm like, “What do you mean you don't like me?” No one liked me. That was kind of the, ‘Oh my gosh.' I felt like it was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. It was so embarrassing. It was horrible, but today, I speak 100 times a year. I would not speak 100 paid times a year if it wasn't for what happened to me 20 years ago with my second big public presentation. I probably never would have spoke very much, because I never would have realized what was happening. It was hard. It was horrible, but it was great.
I still see that very same speaking coach a couple times a year.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, so this is so interesting because failure is feedback; certainly in the context of a startup. Because say you have an idea that's untested, but without getting feedback from your customers, you may hate your early iteration of a product or a service, or like whatever. We all need feedback. We grow in those moments, don't we? When things go wrong.
This, of course, begs … I mean there's two really interesting things about your story is that in a way, that … perhaps the fear of thinking that you had to be like the people you were talking to, rather than just being yourself, being authentic. Was that really the takeaway? It's like … and by the way, you're going to have to tell your grandmother story, because … now I want to know what that is, right? But yeah, really the authenticity …
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well, that's exactly right; but I wasn't sure what the authenticity was. I wasn't clear about it. I wasn't … It was just … It was getting in touch with that authenticity that was the most important part, because I was thinking I needed to do this, and that's who I was. It wasn't even close. It just wasn't even … It wasn't even close at all. Yeah, I think you're right about the feedback. No matter what we're doing, we don't want to hear negative feedback. We only want to hear positive feedback, but if we never hear the negative, it's hard for us to grow. It's hard for anyone to grow.
If you're rolling out a new product and there's something wrong with it, you'd want to know earlier rather than later; but it's just one of those things: ‘Oh please, please don't say anything negative.' But that's the way we learn. That is absolutely the way we learn.
Today, I have evaluation forms at every single presentation, because I want to get the feedback. I want to hear not only the good stuff, but I want to hear the not-so-great stuff. If there's something I'm doing that I'm missing, want to know what that is.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, so before we move on to a couple other questions, I really want to ask you on this podcast; you have to tell your grandmother story.
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well, yes. I will … It doesn't matter what presentation, I will skew this to be whichever presentation. If I'm doing a marketing, branding, standing out story, or a presentation, or if I'm doing something on connecting and communicating, I will also use it. But I will … and I don't start with this, but I will say. I was raised in part by a grandmother that I was her firstborn grandchild. How many of you are firstborn grandchildren?
What do you get a firstborn grandchild? We get everything, and that's what I got from this woman. I got all of her time, her attention, her focus. When I was with grandma, it was all about me. I don't know how many relationships you have today that are all about you, but my grandma was my first; and I was thinking I'd have tons of relationships that were just like my grandma. Now that I'm a little bit older, I realize that was probably the first and only relationship that was truly all about me.
My first memory is actually sitting on my grandmother's lap doing something that she absolutely loved to do. My grandma loved two things in the world very much. The first one was her firstborn grandchild, that was me; thankfully. The second was the Green Bay Packers. My earliest memory is sitting on my grandma's lap watching the Green Bay Packers play football. She schooled me in the rules, and the positions, and the players, and the teams, and the calls the referees were making.
At half time of every game that we watched together, she would hand me a piece of paper and a pen and she would say, “Okay Maribeth, it's pop quiz time.” She would make me break down the offense and the defense from the first half of the game. I thought it was normal. I had no idea that other little girls weren't breaking down the offense and the defense with their grandmas. But you know what? The way I felt about my grandma, I would have done anything, absolutely anything that she was doing that she wanted me to do. If she wanted me to Brussels sprouts, I'd eat Brussels sprouts. Whatever it was.
Today, when I get the chance to go up to Lambeau Field and to watch a Packer game, when I walk into Lambeau Field, who am I thinking about? It is all about my grandma. It's all about my grandma. I think sometimes we think about business, and we think, ‘Well, it's got to be about the tangible or the tactical, and if they don't win, then we don't like them anymore.' The reality is it's the way it makes us feel. I'm always going to be a Packers fan because of the way it makes me feel about my grandma.
Melinda Wittstock: That's lovely. Okay, well I can totally see how that way of telling the story is going to work a lot better, because you were being so authentic. You could hear this passion in your voice. It's just like really lovely. That's a great lesson, I think for everybody, about just being yourself.
Maribeth Kuzmeski: [crosstalk 00:34:39 … about connecting with the audience. I thought I was connecting with the audience by doing one thing; but in fact, if you want to connect with the audience, you've got to connect on a level that they all can understand. Everybody has a grandma.
I will do an hour, two-hour presentation. All the people come up to me afterwards, wait in line to talk to me about their grandma, or their grandfather, and the relationship that they have. I'll see people with tears in their eyes, thinking about … because you're not thinking about what I'm saying, you're thinking about how it feels to you and your own personal situation with it. That's one of the things that I learned was that connection is not from me, it's from within with the audience.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes. Exactly. As you have started, run, built, Red Zone over the last 20 years, what are your biggest takeaways or lessons that you learned in business? From that startup stage, from the startup sticky floor, all the way to really like hiring people, going through all the stages of the business. When you look back, what was the toughest moment and what are some of your biggest takeaways now, looking back; say for a woman who is about to start your exact or similar journey?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well, I think that any small business has a big challenge. If you don't know it now, you at some point, if you have a business, you'll know it. It's cash flow. It's being able to manage the cash flow. How many people should I hire? How many people should be contractors? What should my overhead be? Because at some point, you're going to hit a downturn; or 2008, 2009, I'm in the financial services industry. Everything is just going down. It's horrific. The market's going down. Everyone stops doing what they were doing before as it relates to marketing, because they're just in protection mode.
My business really suffered. It was a big cash flow issue; because now we had to manage our people and we had a ton of staff. It's like, ‘Okay, well what's going to happen next?' I think that that's a really hard thing for people to do in general. It's not just women. It's women, men, everyone. But to really prepare for the cash flow situations and to be able to have a bunch in reserve, so that you're never in a situation where you go, ‘Man, I shouldn't spent that,' or, ‘I shouldn't have hired all those people,' or, ‘I should have done this.' It's really thinking through with not just your budget, because we can think through a budget and all of that; but it's thinking beyond that. It's the best and worst case scenarios, and what do we need to do to protect so we don't have a bad cash flow situation.
Melinda Wittstock: So Maribeth, that's such great advice. As we bring the interview to a close, which I always do regretfully. I always have more questions I want to ask; but as we wind up, you have so much advice to share whether it's speaking, personal branding, all the different marketing and everything. How can women out there who want to work with you, find you and work with you?
Maribeth Kuzmeski: There are two places that you can go. You can go to RedZoneLeadership.com. That's where you can find my podcast on successful women telling their stories. Also, RedZoneMarketing.com, which is the marketing firm that I've had for 20 years. M-B-K-U-Z-M-E-S-K-I, MBKuzmeski on Twitter. I'm on Facebook, and Instagram, and every place else; but probably one of the websites are the best place to reach out and feel free … If you're a woman who's interested in being mentored, or you have an organization that you feel is really supporting women in leadership, those are the kinds of things that we like to be involved in, so please let me know at RedZoneLeadership.com.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful. Thank you so much for putting your wings on today, Maribeth.
Maribeth Kuzmeski: Well thank you, Melinda, I really appreciate it.